In 1997 Paul Huston laid his soul bare on a couch in hip-hop hell to reveal the scarred and dark humor of a true veteran. A schizophrenic stew of bugged-out booty clap and demented mutterings, The Psychoanalysis of Prince Paul was his boiled bunny to a cruel and spiteful lover, the hip-hop game. In 1999 he emerged from that hell to find his lover shiny, puffy and confused. He employed a cast of grimy griots and old-school brass to deliver a caustic and timely tale of rap’s road to riches in A Prince Among Thieves. Fully focused and cinematic in scope, it was Paul’s finest work in years. Unfortunately, his label Tommy Boy saw narrow commercial potential in the concept album and put little muscle behind its promotion.
It’s now 2003 and Tommy ain’t his boy. Spurned yet ever-the-wiser, Prince Paul signed with upstart Razor & Tie to drop Politics of the Business, perhaps his most puzzling album to date. Forget his work with MC Paul Barman, forget the Gravediggaz and forget Handsome Boy Modeling School. With a career spanning three decades, beginning as the leader and producer of Stetsasonic, marked by his big break as producer for De La Sou’s Three Feet High and Rising, which was called the future of hip-hop when it dropped in ’89, and defined by boundless experimentation and intrepid trend-setting, we’ve come to expect these oddball offerings from the Dew Doo Man.
What we couldn’t imagine, though, is Prince Paul having to play catch-up with a sound that he has continually outpaced. He’s traded his sly samplings of Steely Dan and Serge Gainsbourg for the deep soundcards of a Triton keyboard. No longer content to jingle change in his hand for a highhat, he now layers his drums for maximum neck-snapping effect. Interestingly, Prince Paul may be the only producer able refresh his technique by attempting jiggy-du-jour styles.
You want Rockwilder? Check out “Make Room.” Replete with rallying whistles and a stuttered bassline, Erick Sermon and Keith Murray stomp all over the track in true Def Squad fashion. On “So What,” Paul’s hazy guitar licks recall the G-funk of Dr. Dre while Kokane’s sing-songy hook smacks of Nate Dogg. Guru and Planet Asia get a Neptunes-like treatment on “Not Trying to Hear That,” with its airy drums and squelching synth riff.
While these tracks seem primed for hip-pop radio, I don’t imagine any of them will receive much attention, mostly because of their somewhat flimsy execution. When the novelty that the storied and zany Prince Paul crafted such palatable beats wears off, you’re left with only average Hot 97 fare.
Fortunately, Paul remains consistent to the theme of record-industry politics and peppers the album with hilarious and pointed skits. Dave Chappelle opens the album perfectly as a schiesty and ego-stroking record exec, while Chuck D and Ice-T later offer some sage advice to up-and-comers who think they can “outball Jay Z.” On the album’s standout track, “People, Places and Things (It’s Who You Know),” three of hip-hop’s most feel-good voices — Chubb Rock, Wordsworth and MF Doom — rhyme breezily over an updated beat of De La Soul’s “Pease Porridge.”
While change has remained the only constant in Prince Paul’s long and varied career, he has, once again, taken a bold step with Politics of the Business. He succeeds in defying expectation by creating an album intended for mass appeal that will probably fail to catch the ears of those who don’t think of Fabolous as a guilty pleasure. Thankfully, no single Prince Paul project is at all indicative of what’s to come — there’s still hope that he’ll reconnect with a sound that will allow his genius to breathe.